I did one of these side-by-side comparisons in 2005, when The Asylum brought out their version of War of the Worlds at the same time as Spielberg’s. Blockbuster ordered 100,000 copies from The Asylum – and the rest is, as they say, history, with the studio moving heavily into the mockbuster market, with dozens of titles, good, bad and indifferent. These have occasionally skated on legally-thin ice: Age of the Hobbits had to have its title changed due to legal issues, and to be honest, one wonders quite how they got away with it here. Unlike War of the Worlds, this is not public-domain source material which is being re-worked, and the parallels are so close as to be completely undeniable. Giant monsters erupt from the ocean floor to threaten mankind; after conventional weapons prove hopeless, our only hope is giant, robotic suits, that are sent out to go toe-to-toe with the beasts.
Atlantic Rim (2013)
Dir: Jared Cohn
Star: David Chokachi, Jackie Moore, Graham Greene, Treach
As is The Asylum’s standard practice, it was released a little in advance of the movie it is mockbustering. The film starts on an oil-rig – curiously, operated by a 75% female staff, though since we only see four workers, small sample size applies. The rig suddenly vanishes, and the military, led by Admiral Hadley (Greene, doing his best, but clearly thinking of his pay-cheque) sends in the three prototype robots to investigate. There’s Red (Chokachi), the cocky maverick; Tracy (Moore), the love interest; and Jim (rapper Treach), who would be the heavy favourite to die first. ‘Cos he’s black, see? They encounter the first beast, which Red eventually helps waste, albeit at the price of some coastal real-estate and getting court-martialed for didobeying orders. Jim proves he’s a nice guy by rescuing a young girl from a bar, without even asking what she was doing there. And Tracy hangs around in love-interest mode. But, of course, there isn’t just one of these things, and the other is heading up the East coast to New York.
The effects here are surprisingly decent, with the creature itself imaginatively-realized, made from equal proportions of teeth, limbs and irritation. Truth be told, it’s more realistic and lifelike than the characters: Red’s reaction, on learning that Tracy hooked up with Jim, is so subdued, the only possible conclusion is homosexuality. None of the trio come over as anything even remotely interesting or three-dimensional; the older actors, such as Greene, or Nicole Dickson as NASA scientist Dr. Adams, who created the robots, escape with less damage, delivering their lines with considerably more seriousness than they deserve.
But in general, the Asylum mockbusters work best, when they don’t try to mimic their better too slavishly: where their Worlds worked, for example, was because what it lacked in spectacle, it made up in C. Thomas Howell’s character, which was better rounded and more sympathetic than Tom Cruise’s. Here, that’s hardly the case: while entertaining enough to sustain a brisk 82 minute romp, you’ll more often be laughing at the film, rather than with it.
Pacific Rim (2013)
Dir: Guillermo Del Toro
Star: Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day
You could perhaps consider Atlantic Rim as the origin story for Pacific, with clunky robots battling a small number of creatures from the ocean floor. For we join Pacific Rim with the war already well in progress. Raleigh Beckett (Hunnam) and his brother pilot a Jaeger that takes down the monsters coming out of a breach in the ocean floor, but after a mission goes wrong, he quits the job and goes to work in construction instead (the favoured occupation of those resisting alien attack, as anyone who knows They Live will be aware). His boss (Elba) lures him back, with the promise of a spot on a mission that has the hope of securing the breach, blowing it up with a nuclear weapon. However, they eventually realize that thing are not quite this simple, and also that if their mission doesn’t succeed, it could be the last hurrah for humanity, because the monsters are only the first wave, and what’s to follow will be much, much worse.
No doubt, the budget is all up there on the screen. We went to see this at the movies for a reason, and were not disappointed in the slightest: the action is massive, yet the level of detail you can pick out among the carnage and mayhem is staggering. That’s particularly the battle for Hong Kong, which for me was the highlight of the film: the final conflict takes place at the bottom of the ocean, where things are a good deal murkier – if understandable, it’s still something of a shame. The characters and performances are a bit of a mixed bag: mostly serviceable, but there’s not much to Raleigh, or indeed, anyone else in the movie that’s not more than a set of action-movie clichés in a very large power-suit. Terminal disease, family loss: you know the kind of things. Still, I went in expecting a loud, spectacular cinematic experience, not a character study, and the film delivers on what the trailer promises. While clearly better than its mockbuster cousin, is it 190 times better, as the budget disparity would indicate? Probably not. But it’s still definitely worth your time and money.